Friday, June 21, 2013

Are we who others think we are?

In the novel I'm currently reading, the protagonist has to go through An Ordeal, one of the tests that's required to fulfill the hero trope. In this story, a work of magical realism in which existence is revealed to be a dream and dreams turn out to be prescient, the Ordeal could turn out to be anything, really. But what it is is the complete loss of everything that seems to be his identity.

Buddhism says we have no fixed, solid self. We do have, as we go about our days, many identities, We are workers, residents, citizens, coffee or tea drinkers. We groom ourselves. Part of practice is to see the ways we grasp onto those identities, and, through awareness, relax our grip.

In this story, a man, a middle-class, white-collar, average guy, one who likely would go unnoticed, is stripped of all that defined him and dropped back into his customary place. He is in a subway station, but instead of being the crisp, clean, worker bee off to an office, he is jobless, homeless, dirty, confused. Friends recognize him, and he has to sit with their pity, their flinching friendship, their averted eyes.

He is unmoored from everything, groundless. Self-less.

What if you lost everything that makes you you? It happens, and not just in fiction. It happens in layoffs, divorces, fires, and other catastrophes. What if you had nothing but the skin on your bones and even that was damaged, even that was not the skin you had creamed and buffed and soaped each morning? If you had, as our protagonist does, a carbuncle? Who would you be then?

I once heard a story from a Zen teacher, who said he had a student who was certain he had gone beyond self, who was not concerned about what others thought of him. Fine, he said. Go stand in front of the group and sing. Without accompaniment. Perform. See if that makes your self conscious. The student stayed in his seat.

Someone commented (on an an unrelated Facebook post) that "a truism in the study of psychology is that we are not who we think we are, but rather we are who we think others think we are." 

What if we are not?

Then others are not who we think they are -- or who they think we think they are. They are, in fact, just like us. There but for fortune (or karma) -- good or bad -- go you or I.

A recent study found that readers who are emotionally transported into a work of fiction display increased empathy. Art can open our eyes to a different way of seeing things. It can change the way we see real people.

Alan Wallace talks about our ephemeral identities in this commentary on the lojong slogan Examine the nature of unborn awareness:

When we seek something to grasp as our personal identity, we naturally arrive at the mind. What Sechibuwa challenges here is precisely this instinctive sense of personal identity that regards the mind as an entity in its own right. He asks us to investigate whether awareness does in fact exist in its own right, whether our minds exist intrinsically, independent of other people's minds, of the environment, and of our bodies.

In the continuum of such mental events we then discover behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns. Out of these patterns we develop a sense of personality, which we identify as "I am". But to equate ourselves with these patterns is fallacious. There is no real personal identity, no "I," no self, in these ever-changing, dependently related events that constitute our stream of awareness. In an ultimate sense, the nature of awareness is unborn; that is, it does not intrinsically arise from some preceding cause. Only on a relative or conventional level can we speak of awareness arising and passing again and again. The concept of mind as an abiding, isolated, changeless entity that performs a variety of mental events-choices, memories, imagination, hopes, fears-that mind as an entity existing in its own right is in fact a non-entity. It is a purely artificial fabrication, and by identifying with that false concept of mind we do ourselves great damage.

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